The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Lunch and Learn: The start of the Mark Byington era in Nashville

Byington sat down with the Hustler on Tuesday to discuss his plans to rebuild Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball.
Miguel Beristain
Byington met with the Hustler at the McGugin Center, as photographed on April 25, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)

There is no time to sit back and relax in today’s college basketball. While the offseason may allow some programs to recuperate, Mark Byington has been in go-mode since he arrived in the Music City in late March.

Just one hour before Vanderbilt landed its seventh transfer commit, Byington took time out of his hectic schedule to eat lunch with members of The Hustler at the McGugin Dining Hall on Tuesday.

Byington hasn’t had much time to acclimate to Nashville. The 48-year-old has been working 20-hour days since he came into the role of head coach. Byington has been unable to reflect on James Madison’s magnificent 32-3 season and was too busy to properly celebrate his birthday on Monday.

The newly-staffed Vanderbilt head coach was donning a black Vanderbilt basketball hoodie when he walked into the dining hall around 1 p.m. CDT. Byington first shook the hands of students and then waited in line for lunch. After filling his plate with chicken, corn and fruit salad, Byington was greeted by one of his players and playfully asked if he had straight-A’s.

It was clear. Less than 40 days into his new position, Byington is already in his stride.

After finishing his playing career at UNC Wilmington in 1998, Byington took a four-year hiatus from college basketball which included selling gym memberships, insurance and going to the University of Virginia to get his Master’s. At some point, Byington’s adoration for basketball only heightened and the former collegiate star rushed back to being near the hardwood. Now, he’ll rush to take on his newest challenge: rebuilding Vanderbilt basketball.

Creating an identity

Byington has never coached a team in the power six conference. Still though, he believes he has the credentials to bring back Memorial Magic and a winning program on West End. Byington has an overall head coaching record of 220-137 and won 69.5% of his games in his four seasons at James Madison. 

Vanderbilt last made the NCAA Tournament in the 2016-17 season but Byington is confident that drought will end through the development of a new identity. The brand of basketball he will develop will be an offense that is fast and filled with several ball handlers and shooters. Above all else, Byington is centered on developing a culture that feels like a family.

“I’ll say this: I’m genuine and honest,” Byington said. “I’m trying to help everybody do their job. I want fans to better relate to me. I’m not a guy who walks around with my head down when I walk outside the office. I think the coolest thing right now is when I walk around campus and the students are running up to me and they’re telling me their story.”

Byington spoke about the importance of connecting with the Vanderbilt community. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain) (Miguel Beristain)

While Byington is the head coach, he believes it’s not his program. He knows that it will be his job to run the team but he made it clear that he is not a “me guy.” Byington is eager to immerse himself with the Vanderbilt community and bring an identity to the basketball court that aligns with what the Vanderbilt community desires.

Not every coach will devote an hour of his unsolicited attention to speak with student journalists. Byington, though, is different. 

Through inviting members of The Hustler to eat at the Vanderbilt Athletics facility, Byington made it clear how highly he views the students as part of his plan to build a champion to West End. Similarly to his vision for the community, Byington has a specific identity for the players he looks to bring in.

“The one thing I’ve talked about with the guys that are staying here and also the recruits that we’re bringing in is that the NCAA Tournament is addictive. It’s not something where you get there and you’re like ‘all right, I’m good now for a couple of years.’ When you get there, you’re like ‘I got to get back here as fast as possible,’” Byington said. “If you’ve got one year of college basketball left and you haven’t been there, you’re going to be so desperate and go so hard to get there. I don’t care if you’ve got NIL. I don’t care if you have a great Vanderbilt degree. That’s going to drive you really hard and we’re trying to find guys that fit in this category.”

With two open scholarship spots left to fill, Byington will likely use one of those spots for a big man to share a frontcourt with rising junior Ven-Allen Lubin. Byington is focused on acquiring players that will play tough, hard-nosed basketball as the Commodores will try to be an SEC contender once again.

Rebuilding an SEC roster 

Following a 9-23 finish to last season, Vanderbilt has undergone an extremely high level of turnover throughout the offseason. As currently slated, eight of Vanderbilt’s top nine scorers from a season ago have either entered the transfer portal or graduated. Despite the fact Byington is coming from mid-major JMU, the challenge of rebuilding a roster hasn’t daunted him, as he understands the current landscape of college basketball well.

“For me, the change hasn’t been coming to the SEC; the change has been in college athletics,” Byington said. “College athletics has flipped upside down. With now two-time transfers and the NIL portion, this year has become even more accelerated than it was last year. It’s full speed ahead and we’ll be trying to get better players from it.” 

Of the returning Commodores, none stand out as much as the forward Lubin. Despite being forced to play center for much of his sophomore season due to Vanderbilt’s lack of frontcourt depth, Lubin was one of Vanderbilt’s best players last season, averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. 

After two promising years to begin his collegiate career, Lubin will enter his junior year on West End as one of Vanderbilt’s most productive players from a season ago. With that in mind, Byington has already been looking at the best ways to get even more out of his dynamic big man.

“I’m really excited about him,” Byington said. “I think we’re going to move him around this year and tap into the versatility in his game. We hired a new strength coach, which I think will be great for him. He does everything well — shooting 3’s, stuff around the rim — and I think he’s going to take a jump. Our style really fits him.”

In the transfer portal, Byington has received seven commitments from players with a wide range of strengths and sizes. The crown jewel has been former North Texas PG Jason Edwards, who averaged 19.2 PPG last season en route to First-Team All-AAC Honors. Paired with recent commitments Chris Manon (12.5 PPG) and Grant Huffman (12.8 PPG), Byington has quickly created a backcourt with three-level scoring written all over it. 

He’s not done yet, though. At James Madison, Byington led an offense that was 11th in the country in points per game (83.2). Through recruiting a team full of capable scorers, particularly in the backcourt, Byington is looking to build a similarly-impressive offense on West End. 

“I’ll play two point guards together in a second,” Byington said. The more ball-handlers we have, the more guys that can dribble, pass and shoot, the better things are on offense and the faster we can play.” 

Starting new in the SEC is certainly a challenge, but one that Byington has embraced. Now almost complete with his recruiting journey in his first offseason, the head coach will next look at another critical ingredient of rebuilding this program: Getting the seats in Memorial Gymnasium filled again.

Buying in to Byington

Aside from assembling a roster and coaching staff that is ready to compete when Vanderbilt returns to the court, Byington acknowledged how important building a strong atmosphere is for any college team’s success. Creating that atmosphere and reinvigorating Vanderbilt’s fan base are high on the list of priorities for Coach B. 

“We have to connect with the fan base with our style and our wins,” Byington said. “It just can’t be one-sided where we tell them to come out; we have to give them a reason to come out. We have to make them feel like a part of us and our wins.”

Especially after a disappointing start to last season, the student section in Memorial Gymnasium slowly thinned out as the season went along. Bringing those students back to their seats is of extreme importance to Byington.

“The energy of a college arena is students,” Byington said. “It doesn’t matter how great the alumni and locals are, but if you want energy in an arena, it has to be from the students. And we’ll make sure to give them their credit when they do help us get those wins.”

Byington hopes to see an increased presence at Memorial Gymnasium this season. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain) (Miguel Beristain)

Early on, Byington has already started to feel welcome in the Vanderbilt athletics community. Much of that feeling has come from his fellow coaches, who were eager to help the new coach get accustomed to life in Nashville. To Byington, the early support was a sign of how things are done differently at Vanderbilt.

“I was on the job for less than a day, and I had a text message from every single coach welcoming me and asking if I needed anything,” Byington said. “That doesn’t happen everywhere; that’s different. It feels like a family where we’re all going to help one another.”

Now just over a month into his tenure, Byington feels like Nashville is a place he can call home. After a long offseason of recruiting and adjusting to a new city, Byington will lead the Commodores out into Memorial in November.

In a similar way to how he attacked his first offseason, it’s a guarantee that he’ll be eager to hit the ground running as a Commodore. Welcome to the Byington era.

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Miguel Beristain
Miguel Beristain, Senior Staff Photographer
Miguel Beristain (’24) is a philosophy and cellular and molecular biology double major in the College of Arts and Science from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When not shooting for The Hustler, he can usually be found playing Magic the Gathering, exploring new restaurants or practicing guitar. He can be reached at .
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